Changing the Rules of the Game

by James Tayler

Water point, Kosovo Village, Mathare, Nairobi Kenya

Water Kiosk, Kosovo Village, Mathare, Nairobi Kenya

By Benjamin Bradlow, SDI secretariat

Cities in Africa, Asia, and Latin America, so often exclude the poor from the political decision-making and financial flows that affect their lives. A meeting of slum dweller federations, local government officials, and academics in Nairobi, Kenya, explored the role of the poor in the growing cities of Africa, and the need to break down the false assumptions of government bureaucracies and professional expertise.

Pakistani architect, activist, and writer Arif Hasan had a simple reflection after a visit last week to the bustling informal neighborhoods of the Mathare Valley in Nairobi, Kenya: “Laws are as good as the rules, regulations and procedures that accompany them. They are as good as the institutions that implement them.”

Slum dwellers in cities throughout the South currently achieve very little through the laws that supposedly govern their lives. Access to water, toilets, electricity, and security of tenure is but a dream for the vast majority of the billion informal residents of cities. The current rules of this life and death “game” of urban development are not only not working, but often actively exclude the poor. So what will it take to build the constituencies with the influence and desire to change these rules?

Such was the underlying charge of a meeting of officials from local government and utility companies, academics, and city/nation-wide slum dweller community organizations, known as “federations,” from Ghana, Kenya, South Africa, Tanzania, and Uganda. The encounter, hosted by Shack/Slum Dwellers International (SDI), was ostensibly about identifying “emerging trends in urban cities in Africa.” But the need for a new governing order that includes the poor emerged consistently through interactions in Nairobi’s slum neighborhoods, as well as in the air-conditioned hotel conference room appointed to bring these actors together.

Kosovo, one of 13 “villages” in Mathare, is the site of a new approach to inclusion of the urban poor in water delivery to informal areas. For years, the Kenya Water Company had complained that they were not receiving revenue from the 6,000 Kosovo residents who were using informal water connections. The SDI-affiliated federation in Kenya, known as Muungano wa wanavijiji (Muungano for short), included many of the residents. They began to organize the community to negotiate with the Water Company to achieve greater access to water, and formalize the connections, so that the Company would receive revenue. As Kosovo resident and Muungano secretary Jason Waweru described it to last year, “We said that both us have rights. So who is to say who has a more important right? So we opened a dialogue.”

Collaboration and contestation have gone hand-in-hand, as both Muungano and the Water Company negotiate the tricky terrain of partnership between “informal” and “formal” actors. At one point, community members began digging individual trenches for water pipes without approval from the Company, in order to speed along the process. Eventually, everyone agreed to something called a “delegated management model,” whereby the Company provides bulk infrastructure, while the community members build and manage street-level piping, as well as collection of fees.

 Rules for the Kosovo Water Kiosk

It is a model that went beyond the rules and regulations of a utility company that had not previously been willing to cede control of its authority to distribute water in such a way. And now it is a model that is taking hold in informal settlements not only throughout the Mathare valley and elsewhere in Nairobi, but also in the city of Kisumu.

So how do we actually change the rules of the game? Hasan argues that, in part, the professions associated with development tend to be a major impediment rather than enabler of change: “I worked as an architect and I can say that we are perhaps the most retrogressive of professions because we are so wedded to standards,” he said last week. “We need to break this passion for small ideal solutions and move to large-scale, non-ideal solutions.”

The interactions between communities, professionals, and government officials are beginning to produce the kinds of breakthroughs that can go to scale. This is precisely because they move beyond the regulations and rules that Hasan describes as rooted in “the ruins of collapsed [colonial] empires … even though those empires no longer exist.” In fact, many planning and architecture standards throughout cities in Africa are unchanged from the original codes established by colonial authorities.

One strategy popular amongst SDI federations to build relationships that break down such walls is community-led information collection, sometimes known as “enumeration.” In Stellenbosch, a small municipality outside of Cape Town, South Africa, an informal community called Langrug is home to approximately 1,800 households. After residents conducted their own enumeration, both the municipality and community found space to engage whereas previously the relationship had been full of protest, unmet expectations, and little change on the ground.

David Carolissen, municipal head of the Informal Settlements Unit, says that space made all the difference. “The data has on the one hand connected us to the slums. But it has also allowed the community to reflect themselves to us.” Now, the municipality and community are talking and planning together as they install more toilets, water points, clean up drains, build a new multi-purpose community hall, and prioritize 300 new employment opportunities for women-headed households.

Sometimes achieving this kind of change, which is often small at first, means creating “a spirit of trust among all the actors in this drama,” Hasan argues. “Trust will lead to better laws, less laws, and less bureaucracy.”

This means that both communities and professional actors need to prepare to act in new ways to move from the relationships of exclusion and conflict that characterize the urbanization of poverty in our cities. Tools for community organization such as enumeration and women-led daily savings, are working for groups like SDI federations to build political voice that can strike advantageous deals with formal actors to upgrade informal settlements. Settlements from every country represented at the Nairobi meeting could attest to real physical and social improvements that had come about through these initial steps of self-organization.

But for professionals in the “formal” sector — government officials, NGO professionals, and academics — there are few, if any, guiding principles for how they can act to achieve real change. Changing the rules of the game is anything but a technocractic exercise. A set of professional ethics for those working in development makes a lot of sense to create a sense of professional judgment that can approach challenges of urban growth. These are challenges for which no clear formula for technical action exists.

Hasan proposes one set of ethics that could, in fact, be useful for all actors, both “formal” and “informal”:

1.    Planning and projects should respect the ecology of the region in which the city/town is located.

2.    Land use should be determined on the basis of social and environmental considerations and not on the basis of land value alone.

3.    Development should cater to the needs of the majority population, which is usually low and lower-middle income.

4.    Planning and projects should respect and promote the tangible and intangible heritage of the communities that live in urban settlements.

Of course, as he notes, given the current paradigm of development, few, if any, projects would be enacted if they had to fill all four of these criteria. But a shift in professional mindset, as well as a shift in the formal strictures of bureaucracy and governance, is a prerequisite for new pathways to more equitable cities.